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The youngest nuclear scientist in Egypt is behind bars

February 5, 2014 at 2:04 am

“I have a graduation party I would like to attend.” That was 22-year old Rawdah Shalabi’s response when she was told of the 11 year and 1 month prison sentence passed on her and the other 21 girls and young women known collectively as “Free Alexandria”. She knows now that she is no longer expected to attend the party as the youngest newly-qualified nuclear scientist in Egypt.

The “Free Alexandria” label was given to the young women by Egyptians who sympathised with their case. They were taking part in a peaceful pro-Morsi protest when they were arrested. Fourteen have been given the lengthy jail terms while the 14 minors have been put in juvenile detention centres.

Rawdah Shalabi loves physics, chemistry and engineering. The girl who never carried any weapons had a dream that one day she will be able to build a real nuclear reactor for her country. Speaking to Turkey’s Anadolu News Agency, Rawdah’s sister Sarah said that the family had reassured her that she would be released on bail and be able to graduate. The savage sentence has shocked them all.

A graduate of the School of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Alexandria, Rawdah was one of ten students who designed a model nuclear reactor in their final year of study. According to her academic advisor, she was “a key player in the calculations for the design of the reactor.”

Yousry Abu Shadi, the supervisor of the nuclear reactor project and a former chief inspector at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Anadolu, “I always saw Rawdah as the best out of the ten boys and girls working on the project. She is a hardworking girl and helped a lot in manufacturing the model reactor. I recall that she was the most determined to translate all of the design programmes from English to Arabic, and even managed to operate it. As such, I consider her to be the best in the group I worked with.”

Abu Shadi couldn’t believe the news of her arrest. “I felt that there must have been some mistake and that it would soon be cleared up.” He too was shocked by the sentence. “I just thought: Rawdah? How could this happen? She is a kind girl from a decent family; how could they regard her as a thug?”

The nuclear reactor that Rawdah and her colleagues designed is the first model of its type in Egyptian. The students and their professor worked for a full year to design and build a miniature reactor. They called it “Reactor 50x” in reference to its production of 50 megawatts of electricity. This has two particular advantages: first, it doesn’t require large amounts of water, and second, it can be used in remote and desert areas. “Rawdah and her colleagues were thinking about how the reactor would suit the Arab region,” said Abu Shadi.

When Rawdah was supposed to be honoured by the University for her role on the project, her family was visiting her in jail. Hossam Shalabi, Rawdah’s father, is an electrical engineering professor who has received the Egypt State Award three times; he is the author of 160 scientific publications. Perhaps most importantly in the circumstances, he is also Rawdah’s role model. When he preferred a post at the University of Alexandria over working in the United States, he taught her that nothing is better than one’s homeland.

Rawdah’s mother told Anadolu about her visit to the prison. “I sat in front of her and she was very calm, which I didn’t expect. She told me about what happened during the trial, but she avoided talking about the verdict. She said to me, ‘Mum, the witness statements were in our favour, and even the story about scratching a glass door on one of the buildings is illogical; if any of us were carrying a stone or brick, it would’ve broken the glass, not just scratched it’.”

According to Rawdah’s mother, she was surprised when she heard from her daughter how the warden broke the news of the sentence. “At first glance, I thought that she didn’t know about the verdict, but then she surprised me by saying, ‘When the prison warden told us that the 11 years were sentenced based on charges of assembly, rioting and causing damage to a building, and that the other month and a half was on charges of possessing a weapon, I was really astonished, and I felt, at first, that I wasn’t able to comprehend this; how could the punishment for assembly be harsher than for carrying a weapon in my country? How could this happen, Mum?'”

The court charged the 14 girls with assembly, the use of force, affiliation with an illegal group, promotion of the group’s ideology in speech and writing, possession and distribution of literature, destruction of a building door, and terrorism.

Her mother asked Rawdah if she cried after she heard the verdict, and she said, “At first, I laughed, as if I were getting over the surprise of it all, but when I was alone, my tears started to fall involuntarily, I cried Mom… I cried because Egypt cannot remain like this, it cannot be managed like this. I cried because I was pained.”

Image updated at 11.30UTC on 03/12/2013 to the correct photo of Rawdah Shalabi